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The Rise of the Machines

Automation isn’t freeing us from work — it’s keeping us under capitalist control.


Illustration by Maxwell Holyoke-Hirsch

One summer during my undergraduate years, I was having trouble scrounging up a job. I needed money fast, so I drew on family connections and applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.

My past experience in the exciting world of fast-casual food prep had gotten me used to a pretty rigid division of labor. Just like in other kitchens, there were “stations”: one for fries, one for the grill, and so on. As a native English speaker, I was most often at the drive-through station, which was one of the least popular positions due to the disrespect with which McDonald’s customers tend to treat McDonald’s employees.

But McDonald’s was also different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.

This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.

In some ways, this deskilling was liberating. Since work asked so little of me other than my physical presence and native language abilities, I was free to do bong hits with my high-school-aged coworkers in the parking lot during breaks. The managers even turned a blind eye. But maybe “free” isn’t the right word, since getting high was practically the only way to kill the drudgery. Giving as little a fuck as possible was an exercise in corporate synergy, necessary for my own sanity and for the company’s overall corporate strategy. But bong hits notwithstanding, I’ve never dreaded heading to work more than during that fifteen-minute drive from my parents’ house to the restaurant where I listlessly unleashed Big Mac Attacks on suburban office workers. Even stoned, working as an appendage of a machine was awful.

As it was a generation ago, automation has become a political issue; one Peter Frase, my colleague at Jacobin, has been discussing for some time. Frase has developed a “post-work” argument for understanding the politics of automation. In the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do. If we didn’t have capitalists sucking up surplus value as profit, we could use that surplus on social welfare to meet people’s needs. Meanwhile, whatever work remains could be split up, so we’d have shorter working days and more time for the things that really matter to us.

One of Frase’s clearest statements on the politics of the post-work future comes from his summary of the deal the International Longshoremen’s Association worked out with employers, in which dockworkers accepted automation as long as productivity gains could be shared among workers who were no longer needed. This, he argues, is a model for the future, though he admits that longshoremen have extra leverage because they occupy a vulnerable point in capitalism’s supply chains. Frase argues that we should model our own political work along these lines, accepting automation while agitating — at the political level, rather than in the workplace — for a universal basic income. Then we have a future where the machines do our dirty work for us, and we can live a life of unalienated labor — or leisure, as we choose.

I love this vision of a future — a “postwork imaginary,” in the words of Kathi Weeks. Weeks argues that the Left needs these kinds of utopian visions of a future sans capitalism — one where I can put in a few hours at the office before spending the rest of my day hunting, fishing, rearing cattle, and, of course, writing criticism.

But I’m just not sure how we get there, beyond a nebulous gesture to “after the revolution, comrades.” Maybe I’m just impatient, but from where I’m standing, in full-bore capitalism preparing some supersized austerity cuts for everyone, it looks like automation is actually a huge problem, a very real threat to workers, who, with the help of machines, are being casualized, laid off, and made obsolete. If it’s disempowering workers and strengthening capital, then it’s not making socialism any more achievable.

Despite having written more than a century ago, Karl Marx has a lot of pertinent observations on the introduction of machines into the labor process. In spite of a few positive remarks about bourgeois productive forces in his early years, he was no techno-utopian — for him, the relationship between labor and machines was one of “direct antagonism.” The machine was “a power inimical” to the worker, created “for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class” — and here Marx singles out the self-acting mule, an early example of automation. His pronouncement is clear: “the instrument of labor becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the laborer; the social combination and organization of labor-processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence.”

Years later, Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Capital, undertook a comprehensive updating of Marx’s analysis of the labor process, taking into account a century of development. This meant a careful examination of technology; as Braverman was at pains to point out, technological development was shaped by capitalist social relations. Automation is not a neutral process; it’s a part of capitalist strategy against working-class power.

Braverman sketches out how this strategy unfolds. Before automation, craft workers are responsible for both the conceptual and the manual labor required to produce a commodity. The skill resulting from this unity makes craft workers hard to replace, and thus gives them power to demand concessions from capitalists. Even more than that, workers have control over the labor process, which derives from the advanced knowledge they acquire in the course of the job. In the early days of capitalism, the bosses didn’t even know how commodities were made; they just owned the means of production. This put them in a rather precarious position themselves, as anyone who’s watched the fourth season of Breaking Bad knows. It’s dangerous if your workers know more about making the product than you do.

For Frederick Taylor, the godfather of “scientific management,” this monopoly of knowledge was where management had to start if it wanted to take control and raise productivity while reducing wages. Taylor devised a process to that end. First, set up an array of surveillance monitors to intensively study the labor process, down to the individual bodily movements of workers. Then use the data to restructure the work process, creating a division between conceptual work (management) and manual work (labor). Then the process of mechanization can begin, in which manual work is replaced with machines, deskilling the labor required in the production process. Taylor was adamant that workers should be given as little agency as possible — the science of management demanded it.

It doesn’t stop with manual labor, though. With the advent of computers, even management tasks can be farmed out to machines: work processes can be broken down into component tasks, and machines introduced wherever possible. Braverman relentlessly criticizes the assumption that clerical workers are somehow more skilled than “blue collar” workers, when they are just as deskilled as people working the shop floor, if not more. The fragmentation of administrative tasks leaves even educated clerks bereft of any coherent concept of what they do, provoking the kind of anomie portrayed in Office Space and making it harder for workers to see the contours of shared struggle.

Braverman’s overall point is that machines aren’t used to make work easier. They are used, and designed to be used, to maintain capitalist control over work processes, especially when the workers start getting organized. They are weapons against potential revolt. It’s no coincidence that the disciplinary mechanism of surveillance is such a crucial component in automation. Today, this process continues to intensify: online supermarket Tesco is experimenting with high-tech monitoring bracelets that force its workers into productivity contests — “gamifying” work just as Taylor did to his subjects shoveling pig iron.

It is insufficient to respond by pointing to productivity gains to justify automation — that’s a management trick. Automation’s prime function is to destroy the ability of workers to control the pace of work. The results are bloody. As Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin document in Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, while management attributed productivity gains in the auto industry to automation, black workers credited “niggermation”: the practice of forcing them to work at high speeds on dangerous machinery.

Such shocking terminology underscores a crucial truth. Robots weren’t responsible for those cars; rather, it was brutalized black bodies. A 1973 study estimated that sixty-five auto workers died per day from work-related injuries, a higher casualty rate than that of American soldiers in Vietnam. Those who survived often suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. This bloodbath is directly attributable to the disempowering effects of automation. Had workers retained control, they wouldn’t have worked at such a deadly pace.

Social commentators are often at pains to comprehend violent opposition to machines. This isn’t just a bad understanding of history; even nineteenth-century thinkers, who could see the changes firsthand, were perplexed by the resistance. From the perspective of bourgeois writers, who saw in history a providential march of progress, opposition to new technology seemed irrational. Andrew Ure, the scientist whose Philosophy of Manufactures provided Marx with much of his information on new machines, chastised the silk weavers who opposed new loom technology. Even though he acknowledged that the Jacquard punch card eliminated entire professions and sent pay rates through the floor, Ure treated the weavers’ defiance — threatening the inventor and smashing his machine in the public square — as a myopic response to a wondrous and inevitable technological advancement. David Ricardo, while sympathetic to immiserated workers, was ambivalent about whether mechanization could be stopped. The expert consensus seemed to be that machines, love them or hate them, were the future.

We risk reproducing these blind spots in our own day, when we should be much more skeptical of claims to technological progress. After all, automation isn’t an inevitable result of capitalism. If the workforce is pliant enough and surplus value extraction high enough, a very low level of machinery will be deployed. This is the case with so-called artisanal mining in Africa, where individuals (often children) with meager tools hop into pits to scrape out minerals by hand. Automation has proven unprofitable enough that grocery stores are replacing self-checkouts with old-fashioned human beings again.

While intellectuals debate the merits and demerits of automation, workers have been quicker to make up their minds. Marx documents how in the seventeenth century, machines like looms and mills were often banned because their introduction caused such social upheaval that it spooked those in power (in one case, the inventor of a mechanized loom was assassinated by nervous authorities). By the nineteenth century, once capital had gained the upper hand, workers repeatedly assaulted the machines that had become instruments of violence against them. When destruction wasn’t on the table, workers quit in droves. The introduction of the assembly line in 1913 caused mass desertion in plants owned by Henry Ford, who had to scramble to deal with an astonishing 380 percent employee turnover rate. Waves of worker revolts in the 1960s and 1970s struck at the instruments of production. In 1975, a gang of pressmen at the Washington Post held their foreman hostage while they meticulously destroyed and burned the computerized press that had just made them obsolete.

History’s most notorious machine-breakers were the Luddites. Though their name is now synonymous with any misguided opposition to new technology, their legacy deserves better. The Luddites revolted against the degradation and acceleration of work: they understood immediately that their survival was at stake. They wrote their own manifestos, arguing that supposedly neutral technological change was in fact political, shaped by the imperatives of management control. When these arguments fell upon impassive ears, they picked up hammers and went Ludding.

Peter Linebaugh’s recent pamphlet “Nedd Ludd and Queen Mab” contextualizes the Luddite rebellion as part of a worldwide insurrection against primitive accumulation, a last-ditch resistance to the Industrial Revolution’s forcible destruction of the old ways of life that depended on the commons. Linebaugh argues that the politics of machine-breaking stem from its status as poesis. As Alan Brooke puts it in his review of Linebaugh, “Instead of the ‘praxis’ of political struggle, an often mechanistic action born of a preconceived theory, the concept of ‘poesis’ implies, as its shared root with poetry suggests, an act of creativity, imagination, intuition and spontaneity.” What were the Luddites creating? Solidarity in struggle.

I’m not romantic or naïve enough to believe that we’ll achieve socialism by smashing things. I don’t have a lot of comprehensive answers to that classic radical question, “What is to be done?” But I do know that socialism will have to be achieved by a strong and empowered movement of the oppressed and victimized, which includes the majority of working people. I think it’s a mistake to celebrate automation, a process which has such a devastating effect on the working class. Instead, we should encourage people to oppose the technologies they rightly see as threatening their existence, whether it’s academics being proletarianized by MOOCs, truckers threatened by Google’s smart cars, DJs made obsolete by Pandora algorithms, or even our savvy longshoremen, who are being forced to give up those hard-won benefits (and who are currently accused by management of engaging in some machine-breaking of their own).

Here’s a post-work imaginary for you. What if, instead of depending on capitalism to give us all the machines we need for a socialism without scarcity or drudgery, we put the installation of technology on hold until “after the revolution”? Under socialism, automation processes could be guided, controlled, and implemented by workers themselves, in ways that would improve their lives without destroying their communities. Socialism, not capitalism, will get kids out of the mines and away from the drive-through window. And we can’t create that future until we stop the present.

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